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Felisa Fargazer woke up, and sat up a bit gingerly. Her movements within this new body had improved, but the instincts of her cat mind were still at war with the instincts of her M’an body, and she was apt to get herself tangled in her limbs. She looked around first to see if the M’an was there, but saw no sign of him. Then she looked at the table next to her cot, hoping for food, but saw that it was empty, and sighed, her stomach growling in disappointment. She’d learned that no food in the morning meant that the Big One would soon be coming to inspect her, and to take some of her blood. She could think of no reason why he did such things, but he seemed to think it very important.
Felisa decided that now, before he came, might be a good time to fully explore her surroundings. Even when she practiced walking, she hadn’t strayed too far from her end of the room. She was gaining more confidence with this new way of walking, though she always made sure to hide her progress from the Big One. Such a surprise might be to her advantage at some point.
She glanced toward one of the doors, her eyes narrowing speculatively. Though the M’an wasn’t there, she wasn’t–exactly–alone. The two metal Big Ones were in their usual places. One of them stood nearby–this was the one that usually brought her food and drink, and had, when she was first learning to walk, often leaped to her aid when she fell. It also assisted the M’an when he examined her. The other one was standing by the door through which the M’an always entered and exited. So far, all it had ever done was stand there. Time now to see what would happen if she approached it.
Standing up, she walked forward slowly, finally stopping several feet away from the door. No reaction. She shuffled forward a couple of steps. Still nothing. She stepped forward again, raising her arm to reach out for the metal handle she’d seen the M’an use.
The arm of the metallic Big One snapped up, blocking her hand. It also made the short, sharp, negative sound that she’d come to guess meant something like “no.” Felisa immediately lowered her arm and backed off. Now was not the time to challenge boundaries–especially as she still needed to determine what those boundaries were.
She turned to look at the first door on her right. This was an opening that the M’an often went back and forth through while he was here. As she got close, raising her arm toward the handle, she again heard the sharp sound from the metal Big One, and backed off again. Obviously another forbidden place. She would respect that…for now.
The door farthest on her right, she knew, led to the room where she could relieve herself. She still marveled at the mysterious workings of it–so much easier than burying her waste. That left one door between it and her current position. She approached it slowly, looking back at the metal Big One. But it stayed silent, even as she put her hand on the metal handle of the door. She fumbled with the handle for a moment, trying to remember what the M’an did with it. Finally, through a combination of her own memory and her body’s remembered movements, she got the door open.
Peeking inside, Felisa saw several metal boxes, similar to those that had trapped the cats throughout the winter. Holding her breath against sudden misgiving, she began walking along the row of boxes, peering inside each one. It only took a moment to find one that was occupied by a form she recognized–her sister, Tealla. But it was a terribly gaunt, listless Tealla, looking more dead than alive. Even Felisa’s choked cry only elicited a desultory wag of an ear from her.
Felisa leaned close and closed her eyes, hoping desperately she could make her M’an throat produce sounds at least close to the Higher Singing of the cat language. “Tealla?” she tried, but got no response. She marshaled her cat mind, trying to gain more control over her voice. “Tealla? Can you understand me?”
Now Tealla raised her head, looking quite astonished. “Can you understand me?” Felisa asked again.
“I…I can…” Tealla said weakly. “Who are you?”
“It’s me, Tealla. It’s Felisa.” Tealla’s words had sounded strange to her M’an ears, but thankfully, she could understand them.
Tealla lay there, ears pinned back in complete amazement. Felisa could almost see the moment when Tealla’s realization that Felisa knew her heart name convinced her that this was real. “What…how did this happen?”
Felisa sighed, wondering how to explain something she still didn’t understand herself. “That Big One, the one who captured us–he…I think somehow he took my ka–my spirit–and placed it in this M’an body.”
“Heavenly Viror,” Tealla breathed. “But why would he do such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” Felisa said helplessly. She looked closely at Tealla. “Haven’t you been eating?”
“No,” Tealla replied, letting her head fall back to the floor of the metal box. “What’s the point? My kittens are dead, through my carelessness.”
“You don’t know that,” Felisa said desperately. “You must have hope!” She looked at the door of the box. “Maybe I can get you out of here, and you can go find out. I can’t leave, but you could fit through one of the small wall openings.”
Unfortunately, close inspection showed that the door of the box did *not* open the same way as the traps Felisa had learned to open. She fumbled at it, trying desperately to figure out the latch. But after only a few seconds, Tealla hissed. “Quiet!” Felisa froze, waiting. “The M’an is coming,” Tealla said. “Get out of here, quickly!”
Felisa wheeled around, ready to flee out of the room. Unfortunately, her cat instincts once again tried to override the movements of her M’an-body, and she fell to the floor, arms and legs trying to propel her as her cat limbs had. By the time she was able to sort herself out and exit, it was too late–the Big One had entered, and was already approaching the open door.
He made sounds at her, sounds that were now maddingly almost intelligible, and ushered her away, closing the door behind her. She watched as he pulled out a ring of metal objects and placed one inside the handle of the door for a moment, before pulling it back out and turning around to find her sitting on her cot, trying to project the usual catly aura of dignified innocence. He seemed to smile a bit, before he approached her, taking his usual implements from a nearby table.
Hours later, the Big One left again, though not before doing something to the metallic Big One standing by the door. Felisa waited several minutes to be sure he had gone, then got up and approched the door leading to her sister’s cage. But as she reached out for the door handle, the Big One made the same warning sound it had before. She darted forward anyway, grabbing the handle and trying to turn it. It wouldn’t budge. She heard a sound behind her and glanced back to see the Big One striding forward. Fearful, she let go and stepped back, watching until it backed away and returned to its accustomed position.
Felisa sank to the floor, feeling a wave of despair wash over her. What could she do now to rescue her sister? From her position, she called out, “Tealla!”
After a moment, she heard her sister’s soft reply. “Felisa?”
“The M’an did something to the door. I can’t open it now. I can’t get to you.”
The only reply from Tealla was silence, a silence that suddenly frightened Felisa. “But I’m not going to give up yet,” she said with more conviction than she felt. “We’ll get out of this somehow. *Please* don’t give up. Please…” Her voice broke as she swallowed down a sob. “Please don’t leave me here alone.” She suddenly felt, with fearful certainty, that if Tealla, her only connection to her old life, died, she would be in great danger of losing herself completely, turning into…who knew what?
After an anagonizing moment, Tealla’s reply drifted to her. “All right. For your sake, I’ll go on living.”
“Thank you,” Felisa choked out. She bowed her head, feeling the water falling from her eyes.